One of the big things I expected Joe Judge to do when he arrived was to shore up our special teams, considering that was his area of greatest experience and responsibility in New England. In year 1, I enjoyed his examples on the Joe Judge Report, most notably when he showed Graham Gano kicking off purposely into a sliver of sunlight to make it difficult for the kick returner to catch the ball and head upfield quickly, and when he showed Cam Brown as the "Canadian gunner" on a kickoff, getting a running start behind the line of scrimmage before the snap and thus getting downfield to make the tackle more quickly.
But in year 2 it seemed to me that, except for Gano and his continued accuracy on field goals, the Giants' special teams took a step back. In particular i was frustrated every time a Riley Dixon punt would go into the end zone for a touchback, when Dixon would shank a punt, of when a Giant kick returner would field a kick just into the end zone and take it out rather than letting it go, rarely returning the ball as far as the 25. (And don't even mention the Pharoh Cooper brain freeze on the kickoff in the Chicago game.)
I decided to go to the statistics to reinforce my notion that Judge (and supposedly excellent special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey) had let us down this year. I was pretty surprised by what I found. First, si.com Fan Nation's ranking of NFL special teams: https://www.si.com/nfl/talkoffame/nfl/rick-gosselins-2021-nfl-special-teams-rankings
si.com ranked each team in 22 different special team categories from 1 to 32, and then summed up the ranking numbers for each category to get an overall team score (so, a lower score is better) and thus an overall team ranking. Here are some of the results:
Not surprisingly, the Baltimore Ravens finished first (and apparently they almost always finish in the top 5) by more than 30 points. Presumably a decent bit of this is the Justin Tucker effect. They finished first in 5 of the individual 22 categories. 5 playoff teams finished in the top 12 (KC, DAL, BUF, LV, CIN).
Only 4 teams finished the year with no negative special teams plays at all (blocked kicks, turnovers, return TDs). One of those teams? Your New York Football Giants. Overall, the Giants finished 10th in the NFL with a composite score of 332.
The story doesn't give all the details, just best and worst in different categories, so I can't tell you everything about the Giants' performance, but here are a few notable things:
- The Giants were #1 in kickoff coverage, at 17.81 yards per return (DEN worst at 39.4 yards per return). BUF, BAL, KC, 3 teams from which we are looking at GM candidates, finished #3, 4, 5.
- Opponent kickoff starting point: Giants were tied for #3 at the 23.8 yard line.
- We were NOT the worst punting team in length of punts or punts inside the 20 (nor were we top 5). More on that later. We were #2 in opponent punting at 43.5 yards and #5 in opponent net punting at 39.0 yards.
- We were one of five teams that made all their extra points.
- We were not the worst team in penalties (that would be the Jets - 20 penalties, 191 yards) despite Keion Crossen.
https://www.lineups.com/nfl-team-rankings/special-teams does their own rankings of special teams in 17 categories, with easy-to-read color coding that groups teams into (my words) excellent, above average, average, below average, terrible. Overall, they have the Giants at #13 in the NFL. We were above average in FGs (attempted, made, %), opponent kick return yards, and punt net average (that last one is a surprise). We were only terrible in extra points attempted and made, and opponent FGs attempted and made. I attribute the first two to our awful offense, and the second two to our bend-don't-break defense.
Finally, nfl.com published their own special teams statistics, e.g., https://www.nfl.com/stats/team-stats/special-teams/punts/2021/reg/all for punting stats. You can sort the rankings by any stat you want. Surely here I will find the smoking gun showing how terrible Riley Dixon was compared to other NFL punters. Well...
Punts: 7th, with 74
Yards per punt: Tied for 22nd (44.4 yards)
Net yards per punt: 24th (39.5 yards)
Touchbacks: Tied for 25th with 6 (but SEA had 10, and 13 teams had at least 5)
Out of bounds: Tied for 12th (8)
Downed: 1st (17), 4 ahead of our nearest competitor
Fair catch: Tied for 18th (15)
Returned: Tied for 15th (28)
Downed inside 20: Tied for 12th, with 24
Return yards: 16th (237)
Now some of those rankings are artificially high because we punted more often than all but 6 other teams. But even taking that into account, many of these stats do not look bad on a per-punt basis.
If you want to see dominant punting, look at the LA Rams and their all-world punter Johnny Hecker. On 51 punts this year (4th fewest in the NFL), only 9 were returned, i.e., 18% (compared to 38% for Riley Dixon) for a season TOTAL of 60 yards. 25 of 51 punts were fair catches, almost 50%, as opposed to only 15 of 74 (20%) for Riley Dixon.
The conclusion I come to is that Riley Dixon's punting was certainly not great. He is certainly not a weapon the way Johnny Hecker is. But he's far from the worst punter in the league, apparently, despite the way it looks to us sometimes. Rather, he is overall a somewhat below average punter in some respects and an average punter by some other measures. He's not so bad that we have to get rid of him, though we should definitely find someone to seriously compete with him in camp, maybe using a late round draft choice, and if we do want to keep him, we should renegotiate his $3.55M 2022 salary as a condition for doing so.
On kickoff and punt coverage, we were above average or average in most categories. We were especially good on kickoff returns, so whether it be Gano kicking off into the sun, Cam Brown racing downfield to make the tackle, the coaching by McGaughey and Judge, or all of these, Joe Judge did indeed accomplish some of what he promised.
Graham Gano continues to be one of the NFL's best kickers. He finished 10th in FG % at 87.9% (Justin Tucker #1 at 94.6%), but 3 of his 4 misses were from 50+ yards. Ironically, his only bad miss was a 35-yarder in the NO game, our crowning achievement of the season. (His 10 attempts from 50+ were exceeded only by the 11 tried by CIN.)
So overall, the Giants' special teams were OK last year, even better than OK in a number of categories, and not as terrible in some of the others as I had imagined. Thanks Joe, and let's hope our new GM and (maybe) new ST coordinator can continue along these lines. Of course, if Matt Araiza is the next Johnny Hecker, I say go for it.